“Every community has its haunted house”.
For what I understand to be the last of Theodore Roscoe’s stories set in the fictional upstate New York town of Four Corners, things take a decidedly suspense-ish turn to discuss the murder of Winthrop Colebaugh by his brother Sheep. The two brothers occupied the house on the farmstead atop Lonesome Hill, which has stood empty since Sheep attacked his brother in self-defence — “the fight had started over an arg’ment about Calvin Coolidge” — and then fled to England to be killed in the Blitz (it’s still very much seen as “the British and their crazy war” at this stage, which is a source of never-ending fascination to me). And still, some 17 years after his death, rumours abound that the discontented spirit of Winthrop haunts the house, to the extent that it has been left to fall into disrepair and for ominous tales and sinister impressions to circulate in the locality…and, of course, be repeated to any curious travellers passing through.
Johnny Harter had grinned. A newspaperman on vacation is apt to confine his spirits to Scotch.
Divested of the young, uncomprehending perspective of Bud Whittier that informed several of these Four Corners tales, ‘Ghost on Lonesome Hill’ (1941) is a simpler tale, not trying to play a double game of a child’s innocence allowing the (presumably) more worldly reader to glimpse around the edges what the narrator fails to comprehend. Johnny Harter comes to Four Corners for his annual pilgrimage, sees something unusual — something occluded from the reader until the end, and which I want to question the veracity of but will trust the old pro we know Roscoe to be to have observed correctly — and gets caught up in a midnight chase up Lonesome Hill that casts the Colebaugh tragedy in new light. That’s it, end credits.
To a certain extent, it’s a shame to lose that double game which many of these stories played, and at the same time it’s sort of lovely to see Roscoe commit to a simple tale of atmosphere and mood, with a little action stirred in, and still tell it so well. It will surprise no-one who has read any of Roscoe’s work that he takes a couple of evergreen classic detection principles and stirs them into a story where they ostensibly have no right being, giving a distinctly American flavour to the tropes that feels fresher than an Englishman writing this story would muster if only because the American school tended to pay less close attention to such principles. From the pen of Agatha Christie you’d see these developments coming a mile ahead — and while Roscoe doesn’t exactly spring the completely unexpected upon you, there’s something almost dismissive in his handling of traditional ideas that invests them with a feeling of (possibly unearned!) freshness.
It also gets remarkably Edgar Allan Poe at one stage, in the absolute best possible way:
Black terror seized him again. Terror of the darkness, the staling air enclosed by greasy walls… No way out. No escape. Sooner or later exhaustion would overcome him. Weeks later, maybe months, some chance visitor to the house might dredge up his bones.
The extended chase through lightning-limned forest as wind clatters the branches around us, making eldritch shapes out of the mundane, has about it the heady, terrifying air of so many of Roscoe’s sequences of uncomprehending flight and — given his tendency in these stories to date to only stir in genuine darkness via some late revelation, repainting many events that have gone before — it’s simply a pleasure to watch the man unfurl a canvas that is so nakedly out to thrill you as fully as possible. Sure, it lacks the harum-scarum wildness of ‘Z is for Zombie’ (1937) or the sobering devastation of I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936), but I’m a sucker for a breathless chase on the page, and this one does a superb job of pressing on urgently while events foment around us.
For a genuine Poe touch, Roscoe would end his story on a less positive note…but, well, I guess the pulps pay by the word and so there’s an extended coda to make some coin from — plus the small matter that, for all their loose association as a series, it would mark a real tonal shift in the Four Corners oeuvre to wind this up in the way I had been hoping. It means that I don’t quite believe how it comes about, but I also don’t think Roscoe was too worried about that despite having executed more adroit reversals in far less time and space before. It would certainly live longer in the memory if the Poe-ish touches were carried through to the conclusion, but I can also understand why Roscoe would wish to cast things more positively and tie up this potentially final visit to NY on less pessimistic ground (although it would have seeded a superb follow-up if he’d wished to return a couple of years later…).
These ten Four Corners tales, then, form a superb cross-section of the pulp writer’s art. Painting locations that are at once simple and recognisable yet rich and complex, populating them with characters who fall into type almost at the uttering of their name and yet finding space to enrich the world they encounter through every small involvement in the plots, and creating stories that are both familiar and intelligently working hard to provide something exciting, that comfort even as they try to push the limits of what such story forms can carry. Sure, there were writers for the pulps who churned out material much more cheaply than Roscoe, but the more you read of his contemporaries the more you appreciate how the man really did create art at times. Doubtless this isn’t the last we’ll see of Theodore Roscoe on The Invisible Event; he’s far too talented and far too much fun to leave alone for too long.
James Scott Byrnside: [I]t’s one of GoLH’s major flaws that the clues are very good, but they are not given to the reader until the end of the story…when they are essentially useless. I’m well aware that Roscoe is not writing a traditional type of mystery, but the two stories with Bud managed to give us clues just fine even though they weren’t necessarily detective stories. This could have been clued much better.
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe